Become part of the exhibit: Artist Zachary Booth Simpson uses video technology to create art
Alexander Calder (1898-1976) is known for his great interactive works of art. He invented the mobile, a word that became synonymous with his movable sculptures in 1931. The viewer of Calder’s work could touch, move and interact with his sculptures, a concept different to a world of static art where people were allowed only to look and not touch. Calder’s work is now seen as so rare and valuable that exhibit-goers are not allowed to touch the pieces anymore.
Artist and scientist Zachary Booth Simpson, an admirer of Calder’s work, sees the ban on touching the art as a travesty, going against the very reason Calder created his mobiles and interactive pieces in the first place.
‘“He’s been murdered so I tried to resurrect him,’” says Simpson.
Simpson creates interactive art ‘— the kind that people can not only look at but become involved with. On the bottom floor of UNCG’s Elliot University Center a digital projector casts falling colored bubbles on a wall. Created by Simpson and fellow artist/scientist Ken Demarest, this unique work has no tangible moving parts that can be touched, but by using your shadow you can virtually hold, scoop up and squash the falling bubbles or ‘sand’ as the piece is called. Simply put, computer gaming software is projected onto a screen or wall and a small, unobtrusive camera picks up the viewer’s shadow, translates it into black and white images for the computer and then tells the software where to put the sand. The viewer can then squash the sand by squeezing it between two shadows, causing pure color to emit from the sands. When large groups of color pile up, the screen becomes ‘stained.’ The stain can be erased by rubbing over it with the shadow of your hand.
As I stood in the large open space in front of the screen I forgot people were walking past me. The art quickly took my complete attention as I grabbed at the colors, tried to eat the virtual sand with the shadow of my open mouth and photographed profiles of my shadow for about twenty minutes. The longer I played with the sand the more I learned to capture it, manipulate it and make colorful patterns that rested in my shadowy arms.
Simpson was once a video game developer with Origin, a once-popular gaming company no longer in business. Later he started his own gaming company, but it didn’t last. Simpson is also a scientist, a molecular cell biologist to be correct, at the Marcotte Lab at the University of Texas. Creating video games gave him insight into making interactive programming and after traveling for a period of time and thinking about Calder’s work, the idea for interactive art snapped into perspective. He had seen projected art before, but never interactive art. So he put his skills to work using the 3D open source gaming software he’d learned and creating something entirely new.
Now Simpson has 11 partners working with him from all over the world, pooling their knowledge of software to create elaborate works of interactive art and games for a company called Mine Control.
In addition to ‘“Sand,’” other works by Mine Control include: ‘“Calder’” ‘— a tribute to the mobile master in which the viewer creates their own virtual mobile and is able to move it; ‘“Interference’” ‘— in which the player’s hands become a radio source as if holding antennas, a very accurate representation of radio waves; and ‘“Marble Marshall’” ‘— where large, realistic-looking glass marbles are to be corralled into groups of like colors. These are just a few of their creations. Their interactive artwork has also been used in theatrical performances.
The work ended up at UNCG after Simpson was invited to be the keynote speaker at the Carolina Film and Video Festival two years ago. Tim Johnston, who is now dean of the arts and sciences department, loved the concept and used some of his allotted funding to give back to those at the school by bringing a permanent piece to campus when he became dean.
The display is always up and running and is free and open to the public for enjoyment any time. Its only maintenance is occasional calibration whenever the camera and projector get bumped out of alignment. Digital design technician Arton Ragsdale keeps an eye on things and makes sure all is running well. Simpson showed him how to set up and run the exhibit while at the conference before the school had actually made the purchase.
Simpson says: ‘“[The] art is about individual participation; it’s not passive.’”
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